UK human rights groups have accused police of attacking civil liberties after officers arrested dozens of people to prevent disruption during the coronation of King Charles III.
The Metropolitan Police said it had made 52 arrests on the day Charles was crowned King, including for “affray, public order offences, breach of the peace and conspiracy to cause a public nuisance”.
Rights organisations said the arrests showed the right to expression in the UK was under threat after the government pushed through new powers to prevent protests just days before the coronation on Saturday.
The crackdown was the latest in a “concerted attack” on civil liberties, said Martha Spurrier, director of campaign organisation Liberty.
Police pre-emptively arresting people for planning disruptive protests was a “manifestation of a fundamental shift” against freedom of expression, she added. “They’re laying the groundwork for trying to shut down that dissent swiftly and effectively.”
Anti-monarchy group Republic said on Twitter that six members including its chief executive, Graham Smith, were arrested and hundreds of placards seized on Saturday morning. The group had announced it would protest against the coronation by making their objections “loud, visible and impossible to ignore”.
“There is no longer a right to peaceful protest in the UK,” Smith said in a tweet on Sunday. “I have been told many times the monarch is there to defend our freedoms. Now our freedoms are under attack in his name.”
Three volunteers from Westminster council, who were supporting a women’s safety initiative in central London late at night by handing out bottled water and rape alarms, were also among those reportedly arrested.
The Met said it had received intelligence that groups had been planning to disrupt the coronation procession using rape alarms. It arrested three people in central London at about 2am on Saturday. They were later released on bail.
Westminster cabinet member Aicha Less said the council was “deeply concerned” by reports of volunteers being arrested, and was working with the police to establish what had happened.
Several opposition members of parliament criticised the police response, including Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey. He accused the government of “passing legislation to clamp down on protest that breached British traditions of civil liberties”.
The public order bill, which received royal assent last week, made certain types of disruptive protest a criminal offence and introduced new police powers, including the right to intervene to stop protests before they happen.
Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said last month that the law imposed “serious and undue restrictions” on freedom of expression.
Karen Findlay, a Met Police commander, said on Saturday that a “significant” police operation had responded to intelligence that protesters planned to disrupt the coronation procession.
The Met sought to respond in a “proportionate manner . . . when protest becomes criminal and may cause serious disruption”, she said, adding that the “once in a generation” nature of the coronation had contributed to the Met’s assessment.
Culture secretary Lucy Frazer told the BBC on Sunday that the police had to make “tough choices” between ensuring the coronation went ahead smoothly and allowing the right to protest.